The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty

Volume 28, No. 4 - Summer 2017
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University of Minnesota Press (2015)
239 pages

Review by Margaret Jacobs

This book brings together 12 essays by the incisive Australian Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson. The author points out the limitations of two primary approaches that scholars have taken toward Australia, the United States, and other settler colonies: Indigenous knowledges and whiteness studies. She seeks to connect the two approaches by analyzing “possessive logics” as the basis of whiteness in settler colonial sites.

Indigenous scholars, she asserts, have taken primarily an “endogenous approach,” which “centers the Indigenous world as the object of study.” Such scholarship has been crucial in critiquing the production of knowledge about Indigenous people, Moreton-Robinson argues, but has neglected the ways non- Indigenous disciplinary knowledges have used “race” as a means of marking Indigenous difference. Moreton-Robinson thinks it is high time that Indigenous scholars intervene in whiteness studies and analyze race more fully. The “race blindness” of Indigenous studies has “foreclosed the possibility of theorizing how racialization works to produce indigeneity through whiteness,” she states.

Moreton-Robinson aims her analytical arrows at whiteness studies too. Scholars in that field have studied migration, slavery, diaspora, and hybridity but have largely ignored indigeneity. In the United States, she maintains, scholars have focused almost exclusively on African Americans and have missed the way in which “Native American dispossession indelibly marks configurations of white national identity.” Such studies of whiteness have inadvertently contributed to the naturalization of colonial relationships and the marginalization of Indigenous perspectives. As Moreton-Robinson puts it, “As long as the field of whiteness studies remains locked in to the black/white binary and tropes of migration and slavery, the nation as a White possession will continue to operate discursively and invisibly within knowledge production of the United States academy.”

Moreton-Robinson’s most important contribution in this volume is her conceptualization of the “possessive logics” of whiteness— the notion that White supremacy and capitalism rest on the possession of Indigenous lands. Moreton-Robinson’s notion of “possessive logics” is an important contrast to Patrick Wolfe’s “logic of elimination” as the basis of settler colonialism. She sees possessive logics as a mode of rationalization that divides residents of settler colonial nations into one of three positions: “owning property,” “becoming propertyless,” or “being property.”

Most of the essays in the volume are on Australian Indigenous issues, but have relevance globally. Moreton-Robinson lucidly demonstrates, for example, how the Australian settler sense of belonging relied on lionizing the pioneer and “the battler,” British migrants who built the nation while dispossessing the original inhabitants. While highly theoretical, this book provides many thought-provoking insights that could help bridge divides between scholars of indigeneity and those of whiteness.

Margaret Jacobs, Ph.D., is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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